Spontaneous prayers vs. recited prayers

Sunday, February 12, 2012

This topic has been on my mind for a while, but I was inspired to finally write after reading the blog post of our brother, The Secular Catholic.  A very nice article talking about the merits of recited prayer from the Western praxis.  Now I offer the Eastern.

The Western praxis thrives on a balance of spontaneous and recited prayers.  Many Roman Catholics I have come across with (and during the majority of my life I was one) love their "personal prayer time" especially before and after receiving Communion, and immediately before and after the Mass.  Its a time when we get to "lift up our hearts" to God and tell Him what we want to tell Him.  Not that he doesn't know already what we want and need, but as humans we feel the need to petition the King in our own words.

The East is quite different when it comes to spontaneous prayers.  The Eastern praxis relies on more recited prayers and less, if not completely eliminate spontaneous prayers.  Why is that so?  Can we not petition God?  Of course we can.  But we also know that God knows what we need (...for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  Matthew 6:8).  Prayer is seen as something that not only communicates with God, but communicates with ourselves.  Our Latin brethren has put this down into simple words (in Latin, nonetheless), "Lex orandi, lex credendi."  In simple English, it says "the law of prayer is the law of belief."  Or in simpler terms, how we believe is how we pray.  But the reverse is also true.  Our prayer also teaches us how to believe.

Now, how does "Lex orandi, lex credendi" apply to spontaneous prayer?  We often pray how we are taught what God is in our lives.  Most of us grow up seeing God as some sort of Genie in a lamp.  We ask for things and expect to receive these things (or something very close to it).  We say sorry for our sins hoping he'll give us what we ask for.  We thank Him for His blessings so that He will recognize our faithfulness and gratitude and hopefully give us what we ask for.  Because many who are poorly Catechized, or belong to communities with defective theologies, we tend to approach prayer that way.  And because we pray that way, it perpetuates our misguided belief.

Now, by using recited prayers, we use prayers that are theologically correct.  Theologically correct prayers are important because it expresses the right way to approach God.  But more importantly, prayers do not speak to God alone, but speaks to us as well.  By meditating on the pre-written prayer, we learn more about our relationship with God.

Another question is, how do I communicate myself to God using a prayer written by someone else?  As stated in the last paragraph, prayer is not meant only to communicate to God but also to speak to us.  And in speaking to us, transform us into what the prayer really stands for.  Our objective in prayer is not to merely talk to God in a verbal sense.  The Eastern goal of salvation is Theosis, which means we aim to become partakers of the Divine Nature of God.  And to accomplish this is we need to be transformed ontologicaylly, meaning our very being is transformed from this fallen nature subject to sin and death into the Divine Nature of God.  Of course we accomplish this via the Mysteries (or Sacraments) which enable us to receive the graces of God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  But prayer is also one of the ways this is achieved.  As the prayer transforms us, the goal is for us to live the recited prayer in our lives.  We don't speak the prayer anymore, but rather think and act as the prayer says, thus making our lives the prayer to God.  And that would be pleasing to God, that we live a life according to how He taught us to live through Scripture and the teachings of the Apostles and the Church Fathers.  That is why as I said earlier, theologically correct prayers are important.  If the theology of our prayer is incorrect, our lives will be transformed incorrectly, and we'll be off the right path.  That is why Jesus said that the road to life is narrow (Matthew 7:14), because one tiny mistake in the theology of our prayers will lead us off the straight and narrow path, and lead us to damnation instead of salvation.

The greatest example of recited prayer in Eastern Christianity is of course the Jesus Prayer.  Its simple, yet speaks deeply.  The continuous invocation of the Divine Name of Christ, plus the admission that we are nothing but sinners begging for His mercy, its the entire Gospel of Christ summarized in one short paragraph.  "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."  A short and simple prayer that says so much.  Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  We are sinners.  We need His mercy to be saved.  Isn't that what Christianity is all about?  Why do we need to make up prayers worth 1000 words but doesn't really say anything?  And what else can we say, really, other than what we already know.  To pray to God is not only to talk with Him, but to give ourselves to Him by transforming ourselves through the prayer.  The goal of prayer is not to speak to God in human words, but to transform ourselves and create a union with God that is beyond all human comprehension.  Having the correct words lead us there because it guides us. Thus we take up "pre-written" prayers written by holy men and women before us who have been able to achieve such a union with God.

Finally, recited prayer is better than spontaneous prayer because recited prayer means we can pray as one.  One with our brothers and sisters on earth, one with the saints in heaven, and if the theology in our prayers are correct, we are one with God because what is expressed in our prayers is what has been revealed to us by God.  The highest form of prayer is the Divine Liturgy (or the Mass, for the Romans out there).  Compare that to free form services found in many Protestant denominations.  On a given Sunday you go to 10 different services and you get 10 different services.  One might say that variation is good.  The problem is you have 10 different beliefs.  Ever wonder why there are so many different denominations?  You go to a Divine Liturgy (or Mass or Holy Qurbana or any other equivalent) and its the same.  It gives us all the beliefs handed down to us by Christ through the Apostles and the Church Fathers.  While the externals differ from each Rite and each particular Church, the essence of the faith is the same.  We believe in a Trinitarian God, we believe that Christ became man, came into the world, we listen to the word of The Word, we offer the gifts of sacrifice which are made for us the Body and Blood of Christ, we give thanks to God and we receive God in Holy Communion.  It is the same every single time.  We need the repetition to transform ourselves.  It is like memorization for the soul.  When we memorize, we repeat until we can recall from memory.  When we pray repeatedly, we repeat until not only can we recall from memory, but our soul have joined our lips and our minds and that the words of the prayer echo within our souls and transform our lives and that we live the prayer, we become the prayer, and that prayer that is our very essence is what God will receive.  But only if the prayer is correct.


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